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A liberal fights back
Fred M. Hechinger, New York Times, 1972

Liberals, said Malcolm McDowell, star of A Clockwork Orange, hate that film. The implication is that there is something shameful in the liberals' reaction - that at the very least they don't know the score. Quite the opposite is true. Any liberal with brains *should* hate Clockwork, not as a matter of artistic criticism but for the trend this film represents. An alert liberal should recognize the voice of fascism.

"Movies don't alter the world, they pose questions and warnings," said Mr. McDowell. This is close to the truth. Movies reflect the mood of the world because they pander to the frame of mind of their potential customers. During the Depression years, Hollywood offered those eye-filling and mind-soothing productions that took a despondent public's thoughts off the grim realities. Occasionally, the diverting tinsel was laced with some Grapes of Wrath realism.

During and after World War II, Hollywood reflected the American mind with an outpouring of syrupy patriotism and comic-strip anti-Nazism. Minor modifications allowed the technique to be adapted, as in The Manchurian Candidate, to the subsequent spirit of the Cold War. More recently, the movies, chasing the youth buck, have wallowed in campus revolution, alienation, radical relevance and counter-culture. The plastic greening of Hollywood did little, one must agree with Mr. McDowell's thesis, to alter the world: it was merely the industry's frantic attempt to keep abreast of society's changing script. It is precisely because Hollywood's antennae have in the past been so sensitive in picking up the national mood that the anti-liberal trend should indeed "pose questions and warnings", though not in the manner intended either by Mr. McDowell or by Stanley Kubrick, Clockwork's director.

The bad seeds had been sown during the period of mindless youth-culture exploitation. Anthony Quinn, who played Zorba the Prof in R.P.M., that ersatz ideological movie about the campus revolt, was the anti-liberals' perfect prototype of the superannuated, well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual, obsolescent, self-destructive liberal. Getting Straight delivered the same cumulative message. The liberal in "Easy Rider," a pathetic, confused drunk, was intended to show the fate that ultimately awaits the bleeding hearts. Even his death, at the hands of fascist bullies, carefully avoided being either heroic or central to the picture's mood. Too bad about the fuzzyminded fellow, but what can you expect...

The script writers were accurately picking up the vibrations of a deeply anti-liberal totalitarian nihilism emanating from beneath the surface of the counter-culture. They were pandering as skillfully to the new mood as they had earlier to the Stars and Stripes Forever.

Now the virus is no longer latent. The message is stridently anti-liberal, with unmistakably fascist overtones. Listen to Mr. McDowell: "People are basically bad, corrupt. I always sensed that. Man has not progressed one inch, morally, since the Greeks. Liberals, they hate Clockwork because they're dreamers and it shows them the realities, shows 'em not tomorrow, but *now*. Cringe, don't they, when faced with the bloody truth?" This is more than a statement of what Mr. McDowell considers to be a political fact. There is a note of glee in making the liberals cringe by showing them what heads-in-the-clouds fools they are. If they were smarter, would they not know "the bloody truth" and, one must conclude, adjust to it with a pinch of Skinnerian conditioning? Is this an uncharitable reading of Mr. McDowell's - and the film's - thesis?

The thesis that man is irretrievably bad and corrupt is the essence of fascism. It underlies every demand for the kind of social "reform", that keeps man down, makes the world safe for anti-democracy through the "law and order" ministrations of the police state. It might be possible to dismiss the McDowell weltanschauung as the aberration of an actor dazzled by critical acclaim and dabbling in political ideology. But he, in fact, accurately echoes his master's voice. "Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage", says Stanley Kubrick. "He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved... And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure."

If this is the motion picture industry's emerging view - as it seems to be, not only in Clockwork but in a growing number of films such as Straw Dogs and even, on the precinct rather than the global level, The French Connection - then what sort of social institutions are to be built on that pessimistic, antiliberal view of man's nature? They will - they must, if logic prevails - be the repressive, illiberal, distrustful, violent institutions of fascism. "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Ridiculous! "Government by the people..." Absurd! Jefferson, not to mention Christ, were clearly liberals who could not face "the bloody truth". It takes the likes of Hitler or Stalin, and the violence of inquisitions, pogroms and purges, to manage a world of ignoble savages.

That is the message lately flashed from the screen. The inherently antiliberal nihilism of Hollywood's counterculture phase was the subliminal preparation - filmland's Weimar Republic - for the ugly "truth" to come. Mr. McDowell, in trying to find some socially redeeming value (as the courts put it when describing "good" pornography) in Clockwork's violence, muses that "*maybe* that will lead to something actually being done about street crime." What might that "something" be?

Surely not anything cooked up by those liberal "dreamers" who cringe when faced with "the bloody truth". More likely a dragnet arrest of all those people who look like trouble. How else would one sensibly deal with ignoble savages?

Straw Dogs may have been even more perceptive in picking up the neo-fascist message. Its symbolic man is the confused, nonviolent, cringing, idiotic, nonvirile liberal who in the end is redeemed - by what? By proving his manhood through savagery among the savages.

Liberals, Awake! Be as lip-smacking bloody as anybody. That will take care of the street crime problem, too. And perhaps make the trains run on time. Some of us unreconstructed liberals will, of course, continue to hope that the industry has for once picked up the wrong vibrations, that it is for the first time misreading the nation's mood; that the majority of Americans do not believe, as those who unleashed the stormtroopers and the M.K.V.D. and the RedGuard said *they* believed, that Man the Beast will be conquered and domesticated only through the purifying powers of violence.

Optimism is the incurably silly liberal quality which the new celluloid realism considers ludicrous. One prays that American moviemakers may identify in the popular mood some of those vibrations that led to the creation of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Europeans who knew fascism apparently still believe that the evil and the violence, rather than being inherent in man and thus inevitable, became dominant only because the few succeeded in ruthlessly turning violence into political power over the many. The liberals were not without blame, but they were not the villains. In the end, their faults seemed excusable when measured against the monstrosity of those who regarded men as ignoble savages. The liberal makers of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis do not seem to have cringed at the bloody memory of those black days in Europe when, antiliberalism having triumphed, the human vermin crawled out of the clockwork.

If there is anything to make American liberals cringe here and now, it is the possibility that, in a reversal of history, Europe may this time be more sophisticated than America about the nature of the fascist threat. This is why American liberals have every right to hate the ideology behind A Clockwork Orange and the trend it symbolizes.

New York Times, 13/02/1972
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